The newest version of the Scotland Bill, designed to give Scotland more powers in the wake of its flirtation with independence, has cleared the House of Commons and will now be pored over in the House of Lords before being offered to the Scottish Parliament to accept. It’s the culmination of over a year’s worth of debate and discussion about how best to devolve power to the Scottish Parliament whilst keeping it firmly within the Union. Whether it manages to do either successfully is yet to be seen.
The new Scotland Act, when it is passed later this year or early next, will make the Scottish Parliament more powerful than it has ever been in the history of the Union and will give Scotland more decisions over its own future than it ever has before. This is the dawn of an entirely new era in Scottish politics and a new Scottish Parliament. That bit’s not in any doubt.
The real debate is over whether the Scotland bill goes far enough in delivering both the fabled “Vow” and also the cross-party Smith Commission proposals, which themselves were a watered-down version of the devolution many Scots wanted.
Even with late amendments by the Tories, with tens and hundreds of suggestions from SNP MPs and Labour’s Ian Murray, the bill isn’t quite up to scratch in many ways.
So here are the key things to take from the Scotland bill as it stands now (which you can read in full here):
- The Scottish Parliament will have full control over elections in Scotland
- The Scottish Parliament is permanent and will require a referendum to be abolished
- Income tax rates and bands can be changed by the new Revenue Scotland
- Air Passenger Duty is devolved
- Half of VAT receipts will be kept by Scotland
- The Scottish Parliament can increase welfare spending and create new payments
- The ability for the Scottish Parliament to nationalise ScotRail
- Control over abortion law devolved
- Power over road signage and speed limits devolved
- Control over onshore oil and gas extraction (fracking) devolved
While that’s a lot, it’s perhaps more interesting to look at what’s not devolved. Tax credits aren’t devolved, meaning any attempt at curbing the harmful Tory cuts will need some inventive new benefit scheme. Even though the Tory majority insulates it from defeats in these sort of areas, it’s interesting that the Labour benches chose not to oppose them but to actually vote with them rather than looking to remedy what they have believed to be an egregious assault on the welfare system. Scotland’s new welfare powers are definitely welcome, but while we can’t change the ones that exist already it can only increase spending and doesn’t give the Scottish Parliament the budgetary flexibility it needs to balance its books effectively.
There is nothing in the way of broadcasting devolution that would give Scotland a say in the running of BBC Scotland. There is nothing in the bill that allows Scotland to have any say on energy, leaving our great renewable potential at the mercy of private or UK investment. These are two areas where I felt that devolution could really benefit our culture and economy and give Scotland a true measure of autonomy within the UK, where we could feel and see our success for ourselves. These were brushed over in Smith Commission negotiations and completely devoid of discussion in Parliament.
There are things that the Smith Commission proposed that are missing too. They idea of setting the Sewel Convention, through which the UK and Scottish Parliaments can agree to set laws on each other’s behalf, onto a statutory footing was taken away – meaning that any future referendums in Scotland or major constitutional change will need to be approved by the UK Parliament. Make no mistake, this Scotland bill does not provide us with a federal system, as much as Gordon Brown has said it would. We are still under the power of Westminster, although their stronghold is weaker than ever.
And tied up in this is the problem that the new devolution system still continues with the creaking Barnett Formula of spending arrangements that mean cuts to public services in England impact on spending in Scotland. The change now is that revenues generated in Scotland through taxes will be subject to a sort of reverse of this, designed so that the new devolution system makes no part of the UK worse off. This means that Scottish Governments are caught in a catch-22 situation where they can raise taxes and only be able to marginally improve services. While the promise of keeping the Barnett Formula and the theory behind keeping things equal across the UK are both good, its implementation has been ill thought through and is going to make the West Lothian question seem somewhat elementary by comparison.
Once the Scotland Act goes through, the real change in Scottish politics from the referendum will be felt. Of course the aftershocks of it will still reverberate; they were always going to after such a massive event. But what we will see now is an SNP that needs to prove its capability again with a new remit and a Labour party that desperately needs to show the people of Scotland why it was their natural choice for generations. Neither will be easy, with Labour having the much tougher task of dragging themselves out of the mud, but the process of winning public support shouldn’t be.
The Scotland bill as it is headed is far from perfect, but it’s what we’ve got for now. We need to make the best of our lot, as Scots have done for centuries, and build a better country for us all. The next few years will shape whether or not that can be done within the UK or not.